The Australian DSP answers its critics

(Being new to the Marxism list, I was surprised to come across the July edition of the Marxism Journal with its three potted accounts of the state of Marxism in Australia. I'm a member of the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), which is the only Marxist organisation with a nation wide presence in Australia. I thought I'd present my own assessment of the Australian left, baring in mind that I'm not sure who my audience is or what their interest may be in subject. I've tried to avoid responding to the more puerile remarks made by most of the July Marxism Journal contributors about the DSP.)

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The key to understanding the situation for Marxism in Australia is to understand the recent role of social democracy and the influence of international factors on the left. The main social democratic party in Australia is the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Post war governments in Australia were predominantly based on the main bourgeois parties: the Liberal and National Party coalition.

However, from the 1970s this changed with sections of Australian business beginning to see merit in ALP governments. With more of a base in and control over the Australia's significant trade union and other social movements the ALP could implement austerity measures and restructuring of the economy with less risk of provoking resistance from sections of the working class.

This was what the ALP did while in Federal and various state governments between 1983 and 1996. The corner stone of the ALP's project was the Prices and Incomes Accord. Under an initial rhetoric of social wage increases and tripartite industrial policy the accord led to unions agreeing to gradual declines in real wages and other conditions.

The result was a steep decline in the proportion of unionised workers and the hitherto militant consciousness amongst some sections of the trade union movement. Unfortunately, this hasn't stopped the accord being pushed as a positive model in places like South Africa.

Similar measures were used to coopt the leaderships of over social movements, especially the environment movement and some feminist groups.

The ALP's attacks on its base of support lead to a gradual decline in support. The result was the reelection of even more right-wing Coalition governments from the early 1990s. The difference was that these governments now faced a less organised trade union movement that had much of the consciousness for the need to struggle leached out of it. The Australian Council of Trade Unions, which had always had a substantial right-wing, came almost to resemble the US AFL-CIO.

It was the attitude to the ALP government that really differentiated the various currents of Marxism in Australia in the 1980s. The Communist Party (CPA) had by far been the largest and most influential section of the left. While by no means a mass party, it had a substantial base and roots in the trade union and other social movements in Australia. Unfortunately, rather that using this base to build a strong left opposition to the ALP, the CPA actually supported the accord.

The result of this, and the ideological confusion associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union, was that the CPA collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s. Its allies in the ALP left largely lost any ideological commitment to socialism. Nowadays individuals and groupings exist from the old ALP and CPA milieu in various unions and service organisations. However, they are generally consumed by ALP preselection and numbers games.

Another layer resides in the Australian Greens, which is an electoral formation (It proscribed members of the DSP from joining). Others inhabit various academic departments throughout Australia and have tended to become absorbed in post-modernism and other such pursuits. (Boris Frankel wrote a strangely reified account of Australian Marxism in a recent edition of New Left Review)

The pro-Soviet and China splits from the CPA: the Socialist Party of Australia, The Association for Communist Unity and CPA (ML) all largely disappeared. The SPA retains some influence about the place. Its main recent contribution to Australian politics was to defend the rather rotten deal that the Maritime Union leadership accepted at the end of its dispute with the Patrick's stevedore company.

Overall, the social movement leaderships have also declined, such as the environment and feminist movements. Although pressure to fight-back against the conservative coalition government (narrowly re-elected on October 3) has provoked a limited fight-back of late from some sections of the Aboriginal leadership (against the emasculation of Aboriginal native title) and the environment movement (against uranium mining).

The lack of an alternative to the right-wing policies of the Coalition and the ALP has contributed to the re-emergence of right-wing and racist populism. The Howard Coalition government has used racist 'wedge' tactics imported from the US. The big change has been the emergence of the racist One Nation party..

However, the organisations of the Marxist far left have grown in relative influence and size, in the context of decline in the old social democratic and CPA lefts. They play more of an important role in various issues and campaigns.

The largest organisations of the far left are the DSP (www.peg.apc.org/~dsp) and its associated youth organisation Resistance (www.peg.apc.org/~resistance). There's a wealth of information on the DSP and Australia at these homepages.

In the 1980s the DSP responded to the rightward shift of the ALP by calling for a broad but combative new organisation to the left of the ALP. The DSP called for opposition the ALP-ACTU accord and other methods of cooption of unions and social movements and participated in various regroupment attempts with this is mind. However, none of these regroupment attempts succeeded.

In keeping with this flexibility, the party reassessed some of programmatic positions: such as Trotskyism, the possibility of bureaucratic self-reform in the Stalinist states and other issues. This entailed rejecting the prevailing commitment to formal and abstract internationalism on the far left. Unlike other groups, is not an affiliate of a tiny 'international'. The DSP rejects the approach of building ideological pure 'franchises' of narrow international formations and instead supports the building of strong and unified nationally based working class parties.

The DSP pursues international links with a range of other working class parties engaged in real struggles. In the USA, for instance, this has included the CoC and Solidarity. The main forum for this international exchange is the international journal Links (www.peg.apc.org/~links), which the DSP initiated in 1994. Another forum was the Easter 1997 Asia Pacific Solidarity conference which attracted participation of some 67 different groups and parties from around the Asia-Pacific (see www.peg.apc.org/~apiaustralia).

(Re: July Marxism Journal: These changes were overwhelmingly supported by our membership and were not 'fip-flops' as Tony Hartin asserts in his post. Neither did a Leviathan leadership mete out wholesale expulsions. It was pure slander by Ken Howard to assert this).

In the 1990s our main activity consisted of distributing Green Left Weekly (an independent left paper of which the DSP is the main supporter) and extensive involvement in various campaigns, both directly in the DSP or Resistance's name and in broader formations.

Our most recent focus were two national high school student walkouts against racism which attracted 14 000 and 8000 participants in each (these were organised by Resistance) and a federal election campaign that emphasised the need to build a left poll of attraction outside the ALP. The DSP remains a relatively small formation. However, Resistance's recent role in building the anti-racist movement has resulted in significant expansion of membership and influence in many cities.

In contrast to the DSP, there are a series of smaller ultra-left formations, most with their origins in the Trotskyist movement. The largest are the ISO and its public opposition faction Socialist Alternative (both are equally and extremely sectarian in their relations with the DSP). Others include primarily the Melbourne based Militant (CWI), Solidarity (Fourth International), and various others (Spartacists, Workers Power, Healyites etc.). These are all confined to the main cities in eastern Australia. There is also a pool of non-aligned activists in various campaigns.

The ultra-left organisations are mostly confined to the main cities in eastern Australia. In Melbourne, the tempo of political activity (partly a reflection of a relatively more militant left in the trade unions) provides them with an atmosphere in which they can survive.

Unfortunately, the main approach of these groups is to emphasise their difference with both each other and the DSP. We have tried unity discussion with some. The main response from them is to list fictional and quasi-fictional 'crimes' of the DSP (much like in the July Marxism Journal posts. Ken Howard's Progressive Labour Party is a pseudo attempt at left regroupment and does not really exist outside Victoria. Its first major decision at its 1997 conference was to exclude members of the DSP).

With the decline in the cooptive role of the ALP and the attacks by the Howard Coalition government there's quite a bit of campaign activity about the place. The DSP members active in these campaigns pursue a main tack of building broad and inclusive public actions. This conflicts with the approach of most of the ultra-left, which under the cover of 'militancy' advocates adventurism and often violent minority actions that alienate support of broad layers of politicised people. (The DSP's approach is also that of most healthy activists in these campaigns who usually vote with the DSP to support sensible proposals.

Hence Tony Hartin's "sour grapes" claims about the DSP being "Stalinists' wanting to control the movement" when his own group is inevitably defeated).

The influence of Marxism will continue to increase and rebuild gradually in Australia. Some formations like the DSP can and will continue to play a role in important campaigns. The reelection of the Conservative Howard government, despite receiving a minority of votes, offers challenges to the left stop its proposals for reactionary social and economic policies.

Further afield there is the continuing turmoil in Indonesia and now Malaysia (the DSP is the only left group in Australia with significant connections to the left in South-East Asia) and the waves of politicisation there will probably begin to impact on sleepy old Australia soon.

Regards,

Ben Reid